There’s a thing some men say, men with certain kinds of psychological damage. They claim they have no bad memories—or no memories at all. Or that they are somehow making the mindful choice to exclude the past from consideration, since it cannot be redacted. It’s painful to live with a person who does this. I get the uneasy tone in Amelia’s (Carmen Ejogo) voice as she and Wayne (Mahershala Ali) share a cigarette in bed. What neither of them realizes is that Wayne’s past—this moment, perhaps—will indeed be subject to redaction, eventually. I wonder if we’d behave differently in our 30s if we could know for sure that by 65 we’d be unable to remember our children’s faces, or that we’d be slipping between worlds with no one to bring us back. Maybe we’d take a chance and be a little more vulnerable while we could choose that. Because the psychological damage stays, long after the faces and voices and times and places we loved are confused, tessellating ghosts.
In 1990, the attorney general is ready to indict Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) based on that phone call from the girl who seems to be Julie, and he pressures Wayne and Roland (Stephen Dorff) into “goading” Tom to confess. The detectives know Tom hasn’t hurt his kids—at least, I think they do. They’re pretty tough on him anyway. Maybe it’s performative; they’re being watched. Maybe they’re starting to question what they know. Maybe they don’t entirely trust their instincts anymore, or their memories. Either way, they can’t fail to notice they’re killing the guy. The other cops are ready to hang him. They send Wayne and Roland to the Purcell house.
In 2015, the documentarian is still interviewing Wayne, under the watchful eye of Henry (Ray Fisher). It’s starting to seem like Wayne might be using the dementia thing as an investigative tactic (his withholding observations from the AG in 1990 echoes this). Look, every defense mechanism in the world started out as an adaptive impulse. Denying you remember things is no different; it has uses.
Retreading old ground in 1990, Wayne and Roland do uncover a few things they didn’t know about Tom Purcell, like that he might have been gay. It’s enough to make Wayne think maybe Tom wasn’t the children’s father, which pisses Roland off. They both know they have to get it right after 1980, when Woodard was convicted posthumously on evidence they knew was fabricated and stretched because politicians wanted the community “to heal.” Unfortunately, there’s something weird going on with Harris James (Scott Shepherd), an ex-cop who might have planted Will’s backpack at Woodard’s house and who is now head of security for the chicken processing plant where Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer) worked. Something is going on with that guy.
Meanwhile, Amelia’s own investigation, for a sequel book with which Wayne is clearly uncomfortable, has taken her to a convent that takes in vulnerable girls. One of them remembers Julie, who called herself “Mary July” and came from “the pink rooms.” The girl believes Julie didn’t know who she was, and indicates there was sex trafficking. And Wayne and Roland find Dan O’Brien (Michael Graziadei), who wants money for what he knows. He lets drop that Lucy was an adopted sister with whom he “shared a lot of milestones,” and that shadowy people made her death look like an overdose. Tom’s released from jail, goes upstairs looking for Roland, and overhears others saying Roland had met with Dan and wants Lucy’s phone records. The next cut, to the filmmaker’s photo of Dan’s skeleton recovered from a quarry, makes an implication so unsubtle you know it’s a red herring. But as 2015 Wayne studies it, he overhears Henry arguing with the filmmaker and realizes the two are having an affair. In a long, lucid stretch, Wayne expresses regret for having taught Henry “to withhold.” Maybe when your memory can no longer be counted upon, you’re a little less prideful about how good you are at putting a wall around it.
In 1990, Tom Purcell goes after Dan O’Brien and beats him up pretty soundly. Dan wonders if Tom has ever wondered where Lucy got the money she was living on in the years before her death. He knows who was paying her. Amelia reads from her book at a bookstore. A man confronts her about making money off the Purcells’ tragedy. He’s tall, black, with a dead eye. And Tom goes to the Hoyt house and breaks in. He finds a pink room. Then Harris James finds him.
In 2015, Hays goes from a man with an intact memory who’s still determined to crack the case to a blank slate in a couple of minutes.
This episode has a strong, continuous focus on close shots of lit cigarettes. Presumably, they’re a visual metaphor for things that dwindle and diminish. Memories. Potential. Time.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.